Professor Louise Ryan receives Harvard Centennial Medal
UTS’ very own Professor Louise Ryan has received the 2015 Centennial Medal from Harvard University.
First awarded in 1989, the Harvard Centennial Medal is an honour given by Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to recipients of graduate degrees from the School for their contributions to society.
Professor Ryan, who is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, was one of four Harvard alumni to receive the Medal on May 27 this year in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She joins the ranks of many notable figures to receive the prestigious award, such as authors Margaret Atwood (1990) and Susan Sontag (1991).
Professor Ryan’s citation was: “For making the world a better place by advancing statistical research that helps people lead healthier lives, and for encouraging a generation of women and underrepresented minorities to make their own contributions to the field, we are proud to award you the 2015 Centennial Medal.”
After earning her undergraduate degree in statistics and mathematics from Macquarie University in 1979, Professor Ryan completed her Ph.D. in statistics at Harvard and remained in the United States to take up a postdoctoral fellowship in Biostatistics, jointly between Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Professor Ryan went on to join the Harvard faculty, eventually being appointed Henry Pickering Walcott Professor and Chair of the Department of Biostatistics.
She returned to Australia in 2009 to take up a position at CSIRO and joined UTS in 2012.
Professor Ryan said it was through real-world research experience at the Harvard School of Public Health that she found ways to connect her work with the things she felt passionate about, such as improving diversity in the field of biostatistics and public health.
In 1992, she developed a summer program dedicated to inspiring underrepresented minority students to pursue graduate study in biostatistics, a program that still thrives at Harvard today.
“My diversity work was something that I chose to do because I cared deeply, not because I thought it was going to get me promoted or because it would please my bosses,” she said. “In fact, when I started the program, there wasn’t all that much support for what I was trying to do.”
In 2006, Professor Ryan won the American Statistical Association’s Elizabeth L. Scott Award for her diversity work (opens an external site).
Today, Professor Ryan is concerned with improving the representation of women in the sciences here in Australia.
“In the United States, especially in the health arena, women are not all that underrepresented,” she said. “Coming back to Australia, I have been confronted with a realisation that we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving a better gender balance, especially in science.”
Professor Ryan believes encountering individuals with different life experiences and ideas stimulates one’s own thinking and leads to greater creativity.
“It is a natural human tendency to become comfortable and to want to maintain the status quo, because it feels predictable and safe,” she said. “A diverse environment challenges our perspectives, keeps us on our toes and promotes new thinking.”
In her role at UTS, Professor Ryan is striving to build a cohort of young statistical scientists who understand not only the value of methodological research, but also the application of cutting-edge statistical methods to real-world problems.
“One of my postdocs spends half his time working with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, another spends 60 per cent of her time with the Sax Institute,” she said. “These collaborations not only give them great experience, but also generate ideas for new statistical theory and methods.”
Professor Ryan is particularly excited about a project she has just started with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the United States.
“I am part of a big project focused on helping kids thrive, especially in developing countries,” she said. “We are building a massive database so that we can apply sophisticated models that help us understand and identify the factors that can make a difference, and get the best bang for the intervention buck.”
We congratulate Professor Ryan on her achievement and look forward to hearing more about her work in the future.
Visit Harvard Magazine (opens an external site) for more on the Medal and Professor Ryan’s work.